Wildfires have no morality. They do not skip a house because sensitive and wonderful children live there, or because the owner is a talented oil painter and all her life work is stored inside. They do not overlook temporary homes where talented individuals live, nor do they spare dream homes, that are in the process of being built.
Wildfires do not plan their destructive paths trying to protect the beautiful, or special, or unique. A fire is a living entity, creating its own rules from the nature of its being. It is not kind or thoughtful, nor in the least judgmental. It takes both the saintly along with the wicked in its own portions.
Saying goodbye to a house is accepting that all the components of your existence have now been changed. You have a new path before you: but you do not know where it will be or what it will look like. Being evacuated from your home with a moments notice is the birth portal to this new way of life.
If you come back and the structure has been miraculously spared, as mine has been, you are still on new ground. You have been called to evaluate every object you own, your own values and views, and forced to define what is actually significant in the most intense way possible. You have interfaced with a true force of nature. Losing your home is a tragedy far beyond the experience of being evacuated. My heart breaks for those who have had to face such upheaval.
A wildfire is completely unpredictable. Although we have the most well trained and brave individuals to battle the blaze, they can give their measured and informed opinions, but they have no crystal ball. In the end, it is up to a power far greater than us that determines the outcome.
I am amazed at how close Purgatory is to Heaven, and also how near it is to Hell. It all depends on which way you cast your gaze. Being on an evacuation warning is the closest way to experience that “in-between” state here on this earth. You literally do not know whether you are coming or going, or just staying put. That is always true in life, but it is underlined during a catastrophe, making us sit up and take notice of the temporal nature of everything surrounding us. The threat of impending flames engulfing our homes makes this fact palpable. It is like sandpaper scratching across our souls: real and gritty.
Kyle and I were evacuated for 8 days during the Tamarack Fire. We stayed in South Lake Tahoe with our three animals. When you are forced to leave, all your regular comforts are removed, and you are put into survival mode, piecing together scraps of your former routines to try and get by. It is an exercise in losing everything.
One of our dogs is epileptic, the other old and infirm, and the cat has some very messy maladies that come with advanced age. Overseeing their safety while both of us still had to get to work seemed impossible. Somehow we made it through.
I commuted to my job in Carson Valley over Kingsbury, going to check at the Alpine County roadblock on Foothill every day. It was the best place to get accurate information, and I was astonished that they allowed us to be escorted back into the fire zone to pick up belongings from our homes. It was a true act of kindness.
The first time, I carried a long list of things to load into the car. The deputy would follow you to and from your residence. “Five minutes!” he instructed as I got out of my car. My heart raced and I ran as hard as I could. I had forgotten a flashlight in the confusion, so I rambled through the darkened house grabbing things by memory, and rushed out. We did not have time to get adequate clothing or bedding when we first left, and I tried to make up for that deficit.
The next time I went in, local firefighter Clint Celio helped me carry an extremely heavy trunk. It was filled with decades of family photos. As we lifted it into the car, he squinted at me, “You know you are going to have to move this back in when the fire is over,” he said.
At that point, I had already said my farewells to my home of over 30 years. The hot flames were breathing down upon the structure and the wind was blowing prophetically. I did not think there was a chance in the world my house would remain standing.
I thought Clint was being extremely optimistic, which is actually a very good thing to be. Besides having this good attitude, he was very well-informed. In the end, he was 100 percent right. I had to load that heavy trunk right back in when it was over.
The firefighters and first responders are local heroes, and deserve our deepest thanks and praise. They have done everything they could to save our communities. I was impressed by many other acts of benevolence during this time. The Snowshoe Thompson Chapter of E Clampus Vitus rallied their group to cook 3 meals a day for the evacuees at the Douglas County Senior Center. This was a huge undertaking, and the group worked tirelessly to make it happen.
The Evacuation Center hosted daily fire updates. Retired Fire Chief Jim Holdridge attended these meetings and gathered pertinent information. He kept those of us who could not be there informed with the latest news, giving a balanced and encouraging report each day.
My dear friend Linda Schaan did something quite remarkable. She cooked us delicious meals that we could simply heat and eat for dinner. I will admit that, given the circumstances, we were consuming a diet of mainly chips and candy, interspersed with random frozen snacks heated in the microwave. The time limitations allowed for nothing more. She rescued us with home cooked meals that were filled with love and real sustenance.
Living just on the line of the evacuation warning for the Caldor Fire, that same trunk has been loaded back out in the car once again. There is no need for a gym when you are on warning or evacuated. Although there is much that could keep you awake, when your head hits the pillow, you are out, exhausted from the sheer volume of loading, unloading, checking updates, reassuring relatives, comforting and caring for animals, and trying to keep things in order both at work and with your family at home.
In the Acorn Fire so very long ago, my sons and I left with our dog and the clothes on our backs, flames licking the manzanita behind our house. We realized then that we had with us all that was truly important. Whether it was a lesson, a gift, or a test, we have learned this from our experiences with wildfire. The specter of impending death actually releases you from any sort of attachment to objects that rust and decay. They are all things that at some point, we can no longer own. We approach the Creator with our hands empty.
In the deepest sense, we have nothing, yet possess everything: or at least all that is hidden in this present moment. The future is unwritten in my mind: there is no way for us to see what will happen next. Just as the sad little bear who has come through my yard hangs his head, looking for his mother in this changed landscape, I look around for the familiar and find it vanished. The road ahead has become clouded with blowing smoke, hiding the future, reminding me of my impermanence, and at the same time, filling me with gratitude.